Infectious Disease

Does Zika Vaccine Improvement Require Warp Pace ​​Operation?

January 21, 2021

2 min read

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Disclosure:
Poland reports on the development of a Zika vaccine.

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In less than a year, scientists have developed several effective COVID-19 vaccines. Five years after the Zika virus epidemic, there is still no vaccine against the mosquito-borne disease.

We asked Gregory A. Poland, MD, Professor of Infectious Diseases and Director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic. If Zika vaccine development requires a public-private partnership on the scale of Operation Warp Speed, the government is working hard to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development.

I don’t think Zika virus vaccine development requires Operation Warp Speed-like investment and attention like SARS-CoV-2 does in the midst of a pandemic. We currently have no Zika outbreaks. What is important, however, is that we will very likely see Zika again – or something like that – and that is why it is important to keep vaccine development going.

Gregory A. Poland, MD
Gregory A. Poland

Do you remember what happened to SARS-CoV-2? There was a SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in 2003. This happened in November. That summer it was gone. Still, at the time, mRNA-based vaccines were being developed, tested in animal models, and then put on the shelf when the immediate need disappeared. They were dismantled and then put back on the market in 2012 when respiratory syndrome emerged in the Middle East, and still used to develop other vaccines, including an mRNA Zika vaccine. So they develop these technologies ahead of their requirements. Occasionally, like Operation Warp Speed, you need to speed up efforts because of a major outbreak or public health emergency. In this case we do not have a pandemic situation.

The problem we keep running into in vaccination medicine is that the attention span of government and funding agencies is short. Once Zika stopped being a problem, funding dried up. This is myopic because what should happen is for vaccine development to continue so that it is ready for the next outbreak or for a virus like Zika. That way we can reuse all possible vaccines and make a vaccine very quickly. For all of these reasons, we need to keep investing in the development of, ideally, more than one Zika vaccine. It doesn’t take the billions of dollars and international cooperation to respond to a pandemic, but it does take a certain amount of sustained effort.

The development of vaccines against a particular organism is important. But it has a meaning that goes beyond this microorganism. We have a SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine because an mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-1 has been developed. The time interval between these two vaccines was 17 years. But thank god we had it, or we wouldn’t get anywhere near a vaccine in 10 months, which is a miraculous feat. More than 1.7 million people have died of COVID-19 worldwide, and one in nearly 1,100 Americans has died in the United States. How would it have been if we had started over?

In summary, the development of technologies that focus on a specific virus or microorganism has broader applications beyond that single pathogen. With the success of the two emergency FDA approved mRNA vaccines, you will now see their use accelerating and expanding to develop vaccines and therapeutics for oncology, allergies, and any disease for which an antibody to a target protein would have been developed helpful. This is the power of vaccines – both therapeutically and prophylactically.

Click here to read the cover story: “Zika 5 Years Later: There is Much Still to Learn as a ‘likely’ future outbreak looms.”

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